The Post-Pandemic Path by Michael Clark

It is with immense honor and gratitude that I find myself writing this column for the community that has supported and become a second family to me over the past year.

My journey with Common Good Atlanta started last year after I applied and got rejected from the college I previously attended. I wanted to go back to earn my Bachelor’s Degree but knew I was going to need more support. CGA’s Director of Advocacy and Community Engagement, Patrick Rodriguez, told me more about the program and said CGA might be able to help me with my college application process. Indeed, they did. With the help of countless professors connected with the program, I managed to pass the conduct review at Kennesaw State University and will begin taking classes next spring. I’m so excited for the opportunity to finish my degree and incredibly grateful for the help I got from the CGA network to get across the finish line.

Beyond getting into college, CGA has come to mean so much to me. The organization welcomed me in like an old friend, introducing me to a community with similar past experiences and goals, and allowing me to participate in classes that satisfied my hunger for academic learning.

Unlike most other prison programs which aim to help people only while in prison, Common Good manages to maintain a strong level of support for its members when they get out, as well. I’m in awe of the people I’ve met in this community who have pulled themselves out of the vicious cycle of incarceration and are working hard to lead happy, successful, and inspiring lives.

As this community pushes forward after a harrowing pandemic year, it’s worth pausing to reflect on what defines our community—and what has kept us bonded in spirit even while distant in person. A desire to learn, yes. A longing for connection through online classes, certainly. The practice of providing honest and respectful accountability, of course.

Still, there is something greater that has kept us all connected this past year: Our innate sense of responsibility to improve ourselves and support the rest of our community.

This desire to create a better future for ourselves is the reason why those in the community who are still incarcerated avoid the drugs that make their way past the barbed wire. It is why, instead of getting consumed by the pervasive riff-raff in prison, you’ll find CGA members exercising in a dorm, reading at a table, writing in a room, making rosary beads out of paper, or habituating simple tasks that build focus and resilience.

Similarly, for those of us who are no longer incarcerated, our innate sense of responsibility to personally grow and support one another is why we now find ourselves in virtual classrooms on weeknights talking about Shakespeare and The Tempest. It’s the reason we choose to finish a writing project on a weekend instead of going out late at night. It is why we go on early-morning Sunday community runs when we could be sleeping in instead.

The hope of a better future is ultimately our reason for making better decisions both during and after prison. In the most difficult of moments, we remember our desire to no longer be a burden to our loved ones, but benefactors. To no longer be seen as villains, but underdogs overcoming insurmountable odds. More than anything, this community represents the deep-seated understanding that even in the darkest of places you can find hope, potential, and love—in the world and within oneself.

Of course, our individual paths forward are not always clear and easy. In the moments when working towards our goals feels more arduous than expected, we have CGA’s invaluable support. The organization’s standing members, professors, mentors, and leaders to remind us why we’re working so hard to create a better future for ourselves.

To all those who have supported me and other members of the CGA community over the past year, thank you for all of your care and encouragement. The lectures, guest speakers, guided classes, mentorship sessions, and community runs have given us all a deepened sense of purpose and connection.

I’m looking forward to continuing my journey as a member of CGA, supporting others in the community, and meeting up again in person soon. May we all move closer toward our personal, professional, and educational dreams during the remainder of 2021. And may our actions continue to speak loudest for us because they are no longer defined by incarceration but a vision for how we can contribute meaningfully to our family, friends, and society.

Each new day we get is an opportunity to create a brighter path forward. Let us use the new days ahead to be the architects of our futures.